Lakers bide their time again, waiting for their Western Conference Finals opponent

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The time off is welcome. But the waiting game hasn’t always been kind to the Lakers.

The Western Conference Finals start was slid back to Friday, as the Lakers got a longer break to recover from a short but physical series against the Houston Rockets. It’s been a time to, as Coach Frank Vogel put it, “to stay off my feet and relax a bit.” Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma were among the Lakers who took advantage of an off day Sunday to play rounds of golf, while LeBron James indulged in the first Sunday of NFL football (even though his hometown Browns were pounded).

But similar to the first two rounds of playoffs when the Lakers also had six days between games, they can’t proceed with the knowledge of who their opponent is. Lakers assistant coaches had started hedging on preparing for the Clippers when they took a 3-1 lead in their series with the Denver Nuggets. But now with the teams knotted up going into Tuesday’s Game 7, the Lakers have to wait again.

In the first round, the Lakers learned they would be playing the Portland Trail Blazers on a Saturday before a Tuesday start to the playoffs. After they won in five games, they had to wait for the Rockets to win a Game 7 in literally the last minute. But all this uncertainty isn’t flapping the Lakers coaching staff, Vogel said.

“It’s not frustrating for me because I really don’t focus on things that I can’t control,” he said. “Whoever wins, wins. And we’ll be ready for both.”

Assistant coach Quinton Crawford scouted Sunday’s Game 6 matinee in which the Nuggets came back from a 19-point deficit to stun the favored Clippers a second game in a row. Vogel said he used the Nuggets’ Game 5 upset as a cautionary tale to his own team as they sought to close out the Rockets in their own Game 5 (and did so convincingly).

While much of the national conversation around the Clippers has centered on how unexpected their letdown has been after they led the series 3-1 and gave up double-digit leads in their last two losses, Caruso said his takeaway was more about Denver’s resolve. After advancing from a 3-1 deficit to the Utah Jazz in the first round, the Nuggets are poised to become the first team ever to have two such comebacks in one postseason.

“They were down 3-1 the first series, everybody counted ’em out, they won three in a row,” he said. “They were down 3-1 in this series, I think everybody everybody counted em out, and here they are again, forcing a Game 7. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond, but it’s a big emotional, as well as physical, task to come back from that many games down.”

The Lakers were 3-1 against the Nuggets this year, winning both games in Denver (and one in the bubble as the Nuggets rested their starters in the fourth quarter). They were 2-2 against the Clippers, including a win in the the seeding games opener for both teams.

In the meantime, the Lakers have tried to focus on themselves. They were turnover prone against the Rockets, and their offense hit some snags. They also want to focus on conditioning: They ran a live practice on Monday and plan for another on Wednesday with the hope to keep the “cadence” of playing every other day.

The fruits of these long layoffs so far have been disappointing. The Lakers dropped Game 1s of each of their playoff series so far before winning four straight to advance. They’d like to get out to better starts and stop spotting their opponents an advantage.

“Just trying to stay in as much of a rhythm and as much of a competitive mindset as you can,” Caruso said. “That’s really the biggest thing, not physically being ready, because physically we’re the best athletes in the world. We’ll physically be ready to go. But mentally being able to get to the point where the sense of urgency is high and you’re playing like it’s do or die and you didn’t just have five days off.”

While families and guests have added an outlet to the bubble for players, sometimes the days in between games can feel like they drag on. Vogel acknowledged that the team has tried to do dinners and pizza parties to break up their practice grind and add pulses to the monotony of being at the Coronado Springs Resort for more than two months.

He hoped that this particular break would help the Lakers get a little sharper on their plays and a little rested in their sleep. While sometimes extending one’s stay in the bubble can feel like a bit of a burden, Vogel said, it’s one he’s sure his team can shoulder and keep working through.

“The longevity, it gets to you a little bit, but it’s really not that bad,” he said. “We’re focused in on our work, we’re working around the clock. There’s an absence of your family and not a lot of things to do outside of your work, but as long as we’re just checking in on each other, supporting each other, we’re doing OK.”